Commentary: What is the price of identity in today’s Ethiopia? The suffering of Yonas Gashaw as an illustration

Muluken Tesfaw, For Addis Standard 

Addis Abeba, May 30/2018 – Ethiopia’s ruling party EPRDF has controlled state power in the country since 1991. One of the major political changes it brought shortly after seizing power was to dismantle the previous sub-country level administrations (a.k.a“provinces”) and create the current federal administrative units divided on the basis of language and identity, popularly known as “ethnic federalism.”

Numerous claims asserting the recognition of different identities have been raised ever since. A large number of people have lost their lives for demanding the recognition of their identity, culture, and language.  A great many people have also been subjected to arbitrary detentions and torture. So far more than a dozen such demands for the recognition of identity have been addressed through the House of Federation (HoF). However, the demand for the recognition of the Amhara identity of Welkait was met with force which caused the deaths, enforced disappearances, and exodus of many thousands of people of Amhara origin. The issue remains unresolved despite its persistence for over 27 years.

The area known as Welkait is located in the North-Western part of Ethiopia, surrounded by the river Tekezie in the North, Eritrea and Sudan in the West, and the Semien mountains in the South. It is a highly fertile and productive land stretching across 13,000 square kilometers. It produces some of the best quality sesame and resin for the international market. It is also one of the main gold producing areas in Ethiopia. TPLF, one of the dominant parties of the ruling EPRDF, wanted the land of Welkait ever since it first set its foot on it during its guerilla war and has been fixated on taking it. For that purpose, it removed the Amhara, the native inhabitants of Welkait, and settled more than half a million Tigregna-speaking (Tigray) people in the area, which remained at the heart of the matter. Using its state power, TPLF declared the Welkait Amhara people have “Tigray” identity and forced them to be administered under the Tigray Regional State. The native Amhara inhabitants have been forced to change their Amhara identity to Tigray identity; those who, in defiance, expressed their Amhara identity were killed, maimed, jailed or were forced to disappear without a trace.

Welkait is an area in which an active crime is being carried out on the native Amharas in broad day light. How could something like this be allowed to happen in the 21st century?! It is a common experience for the native Amharas of Welkait to be taken away by government security personnel and disappear without a trace. For instance, the following 105 native Amharas of Welkait are known to have vanished through years of repression just because they have openly expressed their Amhara identity.

1)  Mamu Zewdie  2)  Hailu Leyeleh  3)  Alebachew Mebratu  4) Dagne Takele
5) Lema Zenebe 6) Fantu Tegegne 7). Alebachew Defresha 8) Chalu Worku
9) Sefi Sisay 10) Beyene Ayelegn 11)  Asamene Atalay 12) Goshu Haile
13)  Alebel Haile 14) Habte Zenebe 15)  Hayelom yirga 16) Fetene Gebreye
17) Addisu Teje 18) Sisay Tesfahun 19)  Abreha Nega 20) Mamu Desta
21) Meshesha Desta 22) Serebe Betene 23) Bitewlegn Yeshiber 24) Wolde Yaekob
25) Berhe Hagos 26) Lemlemu Ferede 27) Yeshteh Ayalneh 28) Goitom Hadgu
29) Gebreselassie Reda 30) Habte Yirga 31)  Drar Gessesse 32) Lilay Hadgu
33) Reskay Haile 34)  Malede Nega 35) Tebeje Bekele 36) Tekle Lejalem
37). Gere Reda 38) Ayalew Semu 39)  G/Mariam Zeleke 40) Alemu Legesse
41) G/Medhin Zerfu 42)  Tegegne Nega 43) Qes (Priest) Belete 44) Fantu Sisay
45)  Adane Restu 46)  Gebre Tirfneh 47) Mr. Alehegn Tsegaye 48) Sisay Tesfahun
49) Arefayne Mekonnen 50) Desta Lejalem 51) Mereed G/Michael 52) Eyassu Alene
53) Ybeyn Tegegne 54)  Hagos Atalay 55) Tekalegn Tesfaye 56) Leul Mesfin
57) Fantahun Gebeyehu 58) Enkuayen Legese 59)  Ferede Zereay 60) Tegaye
61) MISSING 62) Mulaw Kassahun 63) Ayahuney Wendachew 64) Dereje Angaw
65) Alehegn Tsegayesus 66) Wendim Haile 67) Atmafu Alemayehu 68) Sissay
69) Enyew Awhara 70) Asmamaw Belete 71) Aweke Teku 72) Adebe
73) Atalay Alem 74) Asmare 75) Rtebey Atsebeha 76) Lejalem Taye
77) G/Medhin Zerfu 78) Tedla Haile 79) Yemenberu Ferede’s Child 80) Meheret Abebe
81) Nigatu Tirfie 82) Abebe Tefera 83)  Gebrhet Bahta 84) Damtie Takele
85) Endeshaw Tafere 86) Tegegne Belay 87) Beyew Biyadgelegn 88) Atalay Zenebe
89) G/Medhin Yehuala 90) Nega Tebeje 91) Yirsaw Zewdie 92) Getaw Tamirie
93) Tefera Sisay 94) Gefachew Dagnew 95) Alemaw Zenebe 96) Mamay Tebeje
97) Worku Aytegeb 98) Teka Tesfaye 99) Ferede Tsehay 100) Getu Wolie
101) Tekalegn Tsegaye 102) Nega Asres 103) Wagnew Abatalew 104) Aleka Baye
105) Kegnazmach Wolde Wassyihun


In particular, in 2015, native Welkait Amharas filed a petition to the House of the Federation through their representatives seeking recognition for their Amhara identity in accordance with the Constitution of Ethiopia. Following their demand, all members of the Committee were charged under trumped up charges of terrorism. In August 2016, no less than 400 (four hundred) people were killed by security forces in relation to the Amhara resistance which was sparked by the detention of the Committee members. More than 20,000 (twenty thousand) Amhara youth were detained. Many have since been released, but thousands remain jailed.

Yonas Gashaw is but one

Yonas Gashaw is one of the native Amharas of Welkait to have been subjected to torture in federal prison in the capital Addis Abeba. The sacrifice that Yonas has paid for asking the recognition of his Amhara identity forces us to ask the question as to how much the price of identity is worth in today’s Ethiopia. I believe that Yonas’ one day courtroom experience is enough to show the extent of sacrifice being paid for the recognition of identity.

Yonas Gashaw Demeke is the 3rd defendant in the court case of “Tadesse Meshesha Assegie et al.” who were all charged in relation to the Amhara resistance movement.  The following is what happened at the 19th Criminal Bench of the Federal High Court in Addis  Abeba on January 15, 2018:

During the hearing, Yonas took off his pants in front of the court to show his body to the people who were there to observe the court proceedings. He cried, “You be the judges!” and showed them his genitalia, which was damaged due to the torture he endured while in detention. He did so despite the presence of two of his torturers in the courtroom. The method Yunas was subjected to was that of a common method: hanging a bottled water to his genitalia and suspending it. The audience in the court room burst into a collective gasp and tears. Journalist Shiferaw Getachew, who was following the case, wrote afterwards that he was unable to compose his report after what he witnessed; the judges themselves had to avert their gazes. Of the court room, when a journalist asked the judges how they felt, they said it was beyond belief. Yet, this is not an isolated case. Aschalew Dessie and other Amhara youths who are going through the same ordeal have done so.

Yonas suffered this horrifying torture while he was at the Maekelawi investigation center, where his nails were also torn apart with pliers; where he lost his ability to procreate, and his legs damaged, leading him to fall victim of a nerve disease.

But Yonas’ suffering is not the end of his ordeal. Before he was detained, his family members were deliberately targeted. In the courtroom, he expressed his grief when he said: “They deliberately run over my brother with their military truck; they killed my mother in the same way. Why are the Amhara prevented from breeding and replacing themselves? What we have learned is hatred. What will our generation learn from us?”

He was subsequently taken to Zewditu Hospital for medical treatment but doctors at the hospital told him it was beyond their capacity. He was then taken to Paulos Hospital and was given proof that he suffered from broken bones but officials at the Qilinto Prison destroyed the results of his medical diagnosis. His right leg has been almost completely paralyzed and he needed to wear closed shoes because of this. However, a prison officer got rid of his shoes saying prisoners are not allowed to wear closed shoes. Yonas’ response has been telling: “Do we have to change our ethnic identity even to be able to wear closed shoes?”

Today, Yonas has to use crutches to walk; he cannot step on the floor with his right foot even while sitting. And the right part of his body (up to his shoulder) is in constant  pain. His right foot hardly touched the ground when he was escorted to the restroom while the court was in session.

The demand for the recognition of the Amhara identity of Welkait has brought untold miseries among the Amhara people; Yonas Gashaw is but one example. Similar repression continue to happen today in Welkait. Even as I am writing this piece, several reports coming from the Welkait area of Telemt Amharas are being deliberately targeted by government soldiers.

In his recent visit to the Amhara regional state, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed mistook this matter for a question of  lack of infrastructure. However, the current administration has to look beyond this misunderstanding and put an end to the ongoing repression in connection with the identity question of the Welkayit Amharas. This can only be done by addressing their decades old demand for the recognition of their identity. AS

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